He’s recently been working on his own, as creator and showrunner of Channel 5’s crime thriller, Person of Interest, the first season of which is released on Blu-Ray and DVD this week, our review is here.
We recently spoke to Nolan to promote the release, and during our conversation he spoke about the creeping impact of surveillance on our society, the comparisons between superhero stories and classical epics, and the enjoyment he feels collaborating with other people.
HeyUGuys: What was the origin of Person of Interest, when did it come about?
Jonathan Nolan: I lived in the UK until I was 11, and then moved to the states. At that point we had CCTV cameras everywhere in London, then I move to the states and they didn’t have them anywhere. It was a big difference, and it got me fascinated with the idea of surveillance, and the idea of who’s watching. There are the cameras, but who’s on the other side of them.
So for you it’s about the surveillance culture rather than exploring people going off and acting upon what they see?
I think it’s about both. I’m fascinated with the world becoming a quite considerably stranger place, while looking the same on the outside.
There’s a degree of distrust of government in the series as well.
Absolutely. I think there should be a healthy distrust. It’s not a political decision so much as a recognition that our capacity, and our government’s capacity to keep an eye on us; and honestly, lately more than the government, companies like Google and Facebook that make me wonder. Their capacity to surveil us far outstrips the laws, and outpaces the laws that we’ve enacted to keep track of them.
There’s a problem, and a growing problem, and it’s not going to get better any time soon. By the time the laws have been changed to reflect – privacy laws are a fascinating example. In the states right now, at the very least, and I haven’t kept pace with privacy laws in the UK – but in the states, there’s virtually zero protection. Nothing. Our information’s spewing into this pile, and we don’t really have a great idea who controls it and what they do with it. And frankly by the time the laws have been changed to give a little more transparency about what’s happening with that – Let me give you an example: do you have an iPhone?
I have an Android.
It’s roughly the same thing. Google in many ways is an admirable company, any company whose internal slogan is, ‘don’t be evil’, it’s sort of self-evident. There’s great capacity there to do evil. The people there are very idealistic and interesting people, but the capacity that Google already has, using your phone to abuse that information – it’s really just a question of who’s running the company, and what they’re doing with that information. It’s not about insidious threat, I think it’s more of a creeping threat, where you’re monitored and surveiled in ways that Orwell couldn’t possibly have dreamt of.
Do you do a lot of investigation into these things, and the technology behind it.
We do a fair amount of research, and the writers here – we have a big writing staff, and I think we’ve corrupted all of them to see the world in a slightly different, darker way, suddenly exchanging e-mails with each other about the latest developments. It’s overwhelming. There’s so much of it, it’s such a groundswell here. People for the most part getting on with their lives, they don’t really pay attention.
We’re at the advent of this, and I don’t see much future in this, but you have domestic law enforcement agencies: municipal law enforcement agencies, at least, agitating to get their own drones. Again, I think that’s kind of a blip on the radar, but it’s fascinating none the less. We’re in an arms race here with surveillance that we – we being civilian consumers, regular people – are definitely losing.
You mention the large writing staff. How is it for you working with a large team of people, and given how closely you two collaborate, do you miss having Christopher casting an eye over things?
I do occasionally get his eye on things, I directed my first episode in the second season, which aired here in January, and Chris was nice enough to take a look at it, take a look at my cut. He pops in occasionally and looks at stuff. I’ve always looked at his stuff, he’s always looked at mine, it’s often tricky.
But yeah, when I started the show he was off shooting The Dark Knight Rises, so I was on my own, but the great fun of television is collaboration, which I’ve always enjoyed with Chris, and in television collaboration is the order of the day, every day. You just couldn’t make a show – not an American network show, where you’ve got to do 22 or 23 episodes a year, which is roughly making an episode every two weeks – you have to get over your own bullshit and your own preciousness, and just get in with the writing staff and figure out how to make it work. And it’s great fun, really great fun.
It strikes me that you have a billionaire and a crime fighter. You seem to be touching on ground you’ve already touched on before. Is that because the themes are universal, or because you’re taking inspiration from Batman?
Absolutely. I’ve been working in comic book movies for ten years, and what happens when you do three movies – I started working on Batman Begins in September 2000, so when you’re working on comic book movies for ten years, you get into that key. But beyond that, you also do a lot of thinking in that word, that sort of heightened vein. I came out of that experience – I’m very proud of that story that we told in the Batman universe, and I felt strongly, along with Chris, that this last film should be our last film in that universe, but for me I had a great deal more to say about urban crime and vigilantism.
For Americans at least, and it’s funny, it translates into some parts of the world, but not to others – the whole superhero thing absolutely dominated the box office for years now, and it’s sort of American mythos. It fulfilled a similar function to the way Greek tragedy or Homeric Epics have done for cultures since time immemorial: it’s an exploration of morality and crime and virtue – exploring the question of at what cost doing the right thing, but also playing in that fun, slightly heightened territory of super villains, and the American city as a kind of an urban playground, or jungle, or arena.
And absolutely, I’m fascinated by the fact that frankly, while you’ve had the explosion of creative energy, and money in the superhero realm in film, but at least in this country it has yet to translate into something, map onto anything in television. Americans for the most part, if not drawn to naturalism exactly, at the very least for their crime shows, for the most part have preferred a slightly more naturalistic, slightly more grounded edge to conventional criminal procedurals, whereas our show is unabashedly, unashamedly sci-fi, cyberpunk crime procedural.
Do you find yourself worrying in any way that what your showing does glorify violence to some degree?
I don’t. Again, this is coming from the comic book universe, and connecting back to, again – not that I’m likening the show to Homer – but if you look back – the benefits of a Jesuit education in my case – being steeped in the classics, Homer is pretty fucking violent, and has been since the beginning. I think people, not just Americans, not just the West, everyone has been drawn to, in drama, in the narratives that we tell, there’s always an element of that, because drama isn’t about when things go well, it’s about when things go wrong.
I had a great teacher at one point, who said that all stories ultimately, all drama certainly, is always about crime. It’s either actual crimes, which almost always involve some degree of violence, or crimes of the heart. It’s always about transgression. So obviously you do think, and we endeavour to make the show, given the milieu in which the show is broadcast here in the states, we try – I’m not terribly interested in graphic violence, so we try to keep it within a set of parameters, but like I said, that has always been on the table in terms of drama and writing.
Do you find that, now that you’re doing this on-going series, that when you’re working on other projects ideas bleed into it, or belled across from it, into other projects?
A little bit. My focus has largely been on the show for the last couple of years, but there is a fun kismet where ideas collide with one another. The thing about television, the thing I enjoy about it so much, Is that you have to generate so many ideas, so many stories about the world you get to explore. And one of the fun things about working in TV is that you can bring to – whenever something bad happened to you as a writer, you reach a moment where you say to yourself, ‘I can write about it’. It’s the silver lining in any experience.
I think that collision between ideas coming out of this universe, and the interplay with the other worlds I’m working in, yeah, there’s a fair amount. It’s more, honestly the problem with American broadcast television being 22 or 23 episodes, it’s more a question of ‘what have you got’, ‘OK, here you go’, ‘ that was last week, what have you got now?’. You’re sort of taking everything at a conversation with all the things in your life: the story you read in the newspaper this morning, the book that you just read, the anecdote you just heard, it’s all getting thrown into the blender.